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"Helpless President Lit" - The Latest Trend in Political Tragedy

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Call it "Helpless President Lit." A recent Ezra Klein column is the latest in a growing genre which celebrates our Commander-in-Chief, not as a powerful leader, but as a perennial victim. It portrays him as someone who's powerless over other people's actions, and sometimes even over his own. In this genre the President is forever at the whim of forces beyond his control, even when he has a supermajority in the Senate and a strong majority in the House.

Helpless President Lit is a form of melodrama. It's like an old-fashioned cliffhanger with the President replacing Little Nell, that noble young creature who's forever being tied to a train track or suspended over a gorge by some dastardly villain. Except the country's about to get hurt, not him - and nobody's coming to the rescue.

There'd be no point discussing this backward-looking and speculative genre if it didn't encourage the President and his supporters to continue on such a destructive course of action. I agree with Klein and other critics who say we focus too much attention on the Presidency. But this discussion affects our thinking and behavior at all levels of political engagement.

The only thing more destructive than expecting too much out of our leaders - or ourselves - is expecting too little.

The Rules of the Genre

There are strict conventions in "Helpless President Lit." Its authors must characterize the President's progressive critics as naive. They must say his detractors are expecting more than any President can deliver. The President must be portrayed as a victim of circumstance, powerless in the face of Republican intransigence.

This calls for the frequent use of code words like "realistic," designed to persuade the reader that its plausible to describe the most powerful executive in the world as a helpless creature of our political climate, rather than someone with the platform and the power to reshape it.

Forget all that talk about a "post-imperial Presidency." To them it's a post-Presidential Presidency. Can you imagine George W. Bush's supporters talking this way?

Once the President's helplessness has been attested to, attention is then directed toward the his dissatisfied progressive constituents. The tone that's employed may vary from witheringly critical to mildly and politely condescending.

With each new work of "weak President lit," straw men tremble in fear. But real criticisms, most of which are clear-eyed and practical - and yes, realistic - go unheard. And a Democratic President is encouraged by his enablers to continue down a destructive - and self-destructive - path.

"... shadows on our eyes leave us helpless, helpless, helpless."

Klein's piece is called "What Could Obama Have Done?" The answer seems to be nothing - except possibly to be a little less awesome.

Klein writes:

"I've never been able to come up with a realistic scenario in which a lot more got done, the economy is in much better shape, and the president is dramatically more popular ..."

"Indeed, if you had taken me aside in 2008 and sketched out the first three years of Obama's presidency, I would have thought you were being overoptimistic: an $800 billion stimulus package -- recall that people were only talking in the $200-$300 billion range back then -- followed by near-universal health-care reform, followed by financial regulation ... (don't ask don't tell, Bin Laden, Gaddafi, etc) ... There was no way. And yet all that did get done."

"But the administration hasn't able to get unemployment under control -- perhaps it couldn't have gotten unemployment under control -- and so all of that has not been nearly enough."

Something important's being overlooked here. Obama got what he requested - roughly $770 billion - and said he was satisfied with it. That left many voters with no choice but to blame him for the outcome.

Realistic Action

Klein employs another "helpless President" convention when he challenges his readers to rebut him if they dare - but only, he cautions, "if you have a realistic vision for what an actual president operating in the American political system could have done differently."

Ezra, you're on. Here are five realistic things the President could have - and should have - done:

One: Genuinely help struggling homeowners, using funds that were approved and allocated, rather than torturing them with the HAMP "extend and pretend" program which primarily benefited big banks.

Two: Direct the Attorney General to aggressively pursue criminal indictments of executives at major financial institutions, rather than agreeing to 'slap-on-the-wrist' SEC settlements or pretending that minor, separate investigations are part of a broader global mortgage program. (The Attorney General could have started with AIG, moved on to JPMorgan Chase, and then turned to the drug-laundering operations within Wells Fargo Bank. More info on bank criminality here.)

Three: Push for a public option in that health bill -- the one that Ezra describes as achieving "near universal coverage," but which really forces many Americans to buy inadequate private health insurance at exorbitant prices. (When everybody else was telling us this bill would eventually be wildly popular, some of us predicting its political impact much more accurately.)

Four: Press the Senate for a much stronger financial reform bill, instead of consistently trying to water it down through the efforts of Tim Geithner and other Administration officials. We saw a number of Republicans like Tom Coburn and Chuck Grassley cross the aisle and vote for robust reforms, but only if they were brought to an open vote on the Senate floor.

Five: Request a stimulus that was big enough to work, when it had the political capital to do it. Smart economists in the Administration knew that at least $1.2 trillion was needed. WOnly about $500 billion of his $770 billion initial package was in the form of much-needed spending. The rest consisted of tax cuts, some of which could have had stimulus effect and much of which didn't.

Most importantly, the President could have used his "bully pulpit" to advocate, advocate, advocate -- for jobs, for investment, for regulation, and for the role of government in American life. Instead he has preferred to adopt the destructive "above left and right" posture that's undermined his party and weakened him in the eyes of the public.

Sins of Commission

But the most destructive aspects of this Presidency haven't been the things he hasn't done. They've been the things he has done, Here's a sampler:

  • Creating a "Deficit Commission" and stacking it with people who are anti-entitlement, anti-government, and oppose reasonable tax rates for the wealthy.
  • Repeating the misguided austerity rhetoric of the right.
  • Repeatedly targeting Social Security.
  • Flip-flopping on key campaign positions - e.g. on the public option and the so-called "Cadillac tax" on health plans, as well as on methodology for cost-of-living adjustments that would hurt the middle class, the elderly, and the disabled.

And that doesn't include his continuation of the Bush anti-civil liberties initiatives, the targeting of whistleblowers, and the aggressive pursuit of independent news sources.

It's Not About Him

This is the point in the conversation where somebody says "Why do you hate the President?" The answer is I don't hate him. We could speculate endlessly about why he's made the choices he's made. But, whatever his motivations, he's made a lot of mistakes and squandered a lot of opportunities. That's hurt the country, and it's also hurt his electoral prospects.

If anybody thinks otherwise, they're not being "realistic." They're not reading the polls - not his approval ratings, and not the avalanche of polling which shows that austerity economics is as unpopular with the public (including most Republicans) as it is with smart economists.

Right Action

This is also the moment when somebody usually says "You may be right, but this isn't the time to criticize Obama. Do you want President Bachmann to run this country?"

This is exactly the time to criticize the President, because it's not too late for him to take some aggressive steps to repair some of the damage. In fact, here are some actions he can take right now:

  • Use his executive authority to implement a strong, smart, fair assistance program for underwater homeowners - one that helps homeowners and not banks.
  • Investigate criminal activity in the nation's largest banks.
  • Propose a bold jobs program, even if it will be shot down by Republicans. And if you're as concerned about his reelection as you should be, make that "especially if it will be shut down by Republicans."
  • Announce that he will honor his campaign pledges by refusing to raise the eligibility age for Medicare or Social Security, and by ending his efforts to lower Social Security benefits with a cost of living adjustment that's even more unfair than the one we have today.

What the President's defenders don't understand is that he's being criticized for what he does and doesn't do, not for failing to get better results. The Bhagavad-Gita says "a wise person is judged by her actions, not by the fruits of her actions." That's the standard by which the President - or any of us - should be judged.

Co-Presidential No More

I'll say this for "Helpless President Lit." At least it's not "What Would Hillary Have Done? Lit," a genre which is not only speculative but pointless. (I reject the choice anyway, even hypothetically. The right question is, "What would someone who was not a misguided 'Third Way' Democrat have done?" The Barack/Hillary exercise can never answer that question.)

Obama's defenders need to stop being enablers and let him know that this kind of behavior can't go on - for his sake as well as theirs. The "helpless President" movement must be "codependent no more."

The moral? We need to be more a little more self-reliant and a little less dependent on charismatic leaders. A good way to start is by asking White House for more action to fix our broken economy.

(More samples can be found here. Klein's piece is one of the least objectionable of the lot.)